WOOLWICH, Maine — The trail grooming machines are sitting idle, and have been for weeks.
There’s no point starting them up, after all, if there’s no snow to groom on the trails. As a nearly-barren January for snowmobiling in Maine extends into February, and spring only six weeks away, people who like to go sledding are looking to the skies for white gold.
“You’d need at least six inches to go out, and you wouldn’t want it to be the soft, fluffy stuff,” said Mary Wright, a member of the Nequasset Trailbreakers Snowmobile Club. “We still hold out hope. We just try to keep our spirits up.”
Early forecasts for perhaps a foot of snow Friday into Saturday may help locally.
And it better, unless you’re headed far, far north, Wright said.
She knows. She and her husband, Gary, attended the annual Snowmobile Ride-In last weekend in Newport.
“There was nothing there,” she said. “You’ve got to go way north. Die-hard snowmobilers will go where there’s snow.”
The Nequasset Trailbreakers, meanwhile, are looking forward to their annual fishing derby, scheduled for Feb. 17 on Nequasset Lake.
Perhaps the date will prove to be good luck for snowmobilers. It’s the 61st anniversary, after all, of the great blizzard of 1952, when Portland got nailed with 25.3 inches of snow and 8-foot snowdrifts.
You don’t need snow to go ice-fishing, but the ladies of the club do sled to the clubhouse on Western Road with food for the event.
Bob Meyers, executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association, said Tuesday he has heard widely differing projections on the amount of Friday’s snowfall.
“There’s a raging debate,” Meyers said. “The European models say we’re going to get hammered.”
Regardless, Meyers is undaunted.
“The good news is,” he said, “everything’s frozen now. You get some snow on top of that, we’re in good shape. Rumors on the demise of the snowmobile season are greatly exaggerated.”
Still, Meyers admits, there is the “psychological effect” of the lack of snow in these parts.
“You see brown,” he said. “It’s the backyard effect. This hurts the little gas stations, and the dealers. I took a long ride in early January, and all the trails I saw were open.”
There’s little doubt Maine is in the midst of a long-term snow drought.
U.S. Geological Survey data show Maine’s deepest snow on Jan. 5, 2010, was 29 inches, in Aroostook County. The minimum was 6.4 inches, in Falmouth.
On Jan. 4, 2012, the USGS surveyed 59 sites across the state and found only 16 had any measurable snow at all. Thirty-eight sites had no snow, with the deepest snowpack in the state a puny 6 inches — about 80 percent below the prior year.
Meyers says the amount of snow needed for snowmobiling isn’t universal, depending in part on where a trail is and how many obstacles need to be covered, but he considers 6 inches a minimum.
Data show snowmobile registrations in Maine have dropped about 10 percent from the all-time high of 107,285 in 2002-03.
The 90,892 registrations in 2009-10 were the fewest since what Meyers calls the “disastrous” 2005-06 season, the snowless one that prompted the industry and Maine’s congressional delegation to successfully lobby for “lack of snow” to be included in the list of conditions for federal low-interest disaster aid.
For his part, Meyers is headed to Lincoln this weekend, for the inaugural Maine Wind Trail Ride.
Snowmobiling conditions are excellent, he said, in Jackman, Millinocket and Rangeley.
“It’s a big state,” Meyers said.
Meyers advises snowmobilers to check the website mainesnow.com, which features regular updates of trail conditions.
“Typically, January is the cold month and February is the snow month,” he said.